Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives


The wizard of Mauritius

Port Louis, Mauritius, in the first half of the nineteenth century

In
1782, an unknown French engineer offered his government an invention
better than radar: the ability to detect ships at distances of up to 700
miles. There were many who said that his ideas worked. But was Étienne
Bottineau a genius, a fantasist or a fraud?

Pretty much nobody has heard of nauscopie
these days. But two centuries ago, this long-forgotten "science of
detecting ships and land at a distance" was the subject of considerable
speculation. It was possible – so the theory went – for a practised eye
to discern the approach of vessels while they were hundreds of miles
away by careful study of minute changes that appeared in the atmosphere
along the horizon; these were 'meteors' that grew and shifted
shape in ways that related directly to the number of ships sailing in
company and their distance from the observer. But what these meteors
looked like, and how they were to be interpreted, remained the
carefully guarded secret of one man: Étienne Bottineau, a minor French
engineer stationed on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
Bottineau
successfully completed an eight-month course of observations –
predicting the arrival of well over a hundred ships in ways that
persuaded the local governor that nauscopie was a genuine
discovery. But when he sailed for France to sell the idea to a sceptical
goverment, he ran smack into the onset of the French Revolution. It
didn't help that the one man who believed in Bottineau was Jean Paul
Marat, the fanatical architect of the Terror that cost 200,000 men their
lives. Nor that the only written evidence of his discovery ended up in a
packet of papers confiscated by France's secret postal police, the Cabinet Noir. But is it possible to reconstruct the lost science of nauscopie, and show whether it was fact or fiction?

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